By The Numbers: Slave-Owning U.S. Presidents
1 year ago
While Celebrating Our Presidents During BHM, Some Things Can't Be Forgotten
It’s President’s Day, a federal holiday that was designated for honoring the Office of the Presidency. If we’re lucky, most of us will instead spend the day (off) flipping past channels flashing “blowout sale” TV commercials.
Speaking of commerce … very few people ever mention that a significant number of early U.S. presidents purchased and kept African slaves. The first and third presidents, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, have a holiday created in their honor, and are hardly tainted by the brutal legacy of enslavement, in which they both participated.
In fact, 63 percent of U.S. presidents owned slaves before it was abolished in 1865.
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Slave-owning presidents is the subject of a not-so-widely available 2001 article by Andrew Levy, “The Anti-Jefferson.” It speaks to the legacy of Robert Carter III (not a president), who freed many slaves when it was an unpopular thing to do. Scholar Rob Lopresti used Levy’s article and several other sources to give a complete picture of the topic.
Here’s slave-owning presidents by the numbers:
The number of presidents who owned slaves: Lopresti found evidence that a total of 12 U.S. presidents bought slaves or acquired them through inheritance. They include Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses Grant.
The number of presidents who owned slaves while they served as president: This number is a little more interesting. Lopresti writes that some presidents owned slaves to keep up their plantations while in office. They include Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, and Grant.
The number of presidents who never owned slaves: Not every U.S. president thought owning slaves was an acceptable way of conducting personal business. President John Adams is said to have written the following: “I shudder when I think of the calamities which slavery is likely to produce in this country … I can see nothing but insurrection of the blacks against the whites.” Those presidents: the above-mentioned Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln.
The state with the largest slave population: After the 1860 U.S. census, Virginia was said to have had the largest slave population. In total, there were 3.9 million slaves in the U.S.